Too many cooks… mess up the copy

Written by: David Burrows Posted: 02/02/2017

Having loads of people involved in the copy sign-off process can cause delays, mixed messages, or make it read like a pile of crap. If you want your copy to ‘sing’, then some people need to keep their grubby paws off it

We live in an age where companies want to communicate with customers and potential customers on a regular basis – it’s a time when content really is king. From blogs and marketing communications to social media and knowledge pieces, businesses are arguably generating more copy across more channels than ever before.

Of course, the quality of the content can vary dramatically. Many firms generate copy internally, often written by enthusiastic amateurs, while others employ content specialists to do all the hard work. But once a piece of copy has been submitted for internal review, this is the point at which everything can go horribly wrong, as countless ‘stakeholders’ get their hands on it – dragging out the approval process and often making the copy a lot weaker than it was in the beginning.

Hilary Ivory, Editorial Director at Can Can Creative, believes this is particularly true in sectors such as financial services, where compliance is given such precedence. From the point of view of a PR or copywriting agency, she believes working with a financial services client isn’t an attractive proposition. 
“We simply refuse to take banks on as clients,” she says bluntly. “This is a big statement to make, given how potentially lucrative these clients might appear, but too often their legal and compliance departments strip the guts out of anything you do.”   

She suggests that the fear factor (particularly of litigation) is far more prominent within the financial services sector than elsewhere.

“There’s a need for compliance, but typically legal and compliance departments rule the roost and nobody stands up to them. If content is produced that’s in plain English and accessible, after being put through various hoops from legal and compliance, then the copy becomes tedious and the message is often lost.”

Nick Kirby, Editor-in-Chief at BL magazine, agrees that working with financial services companies can prove problematic. “Because the sector is regulated, it’s understandable that compliance departments want to be sure the firm isn’t making claims that can come back and bite it on the arse. But it can mean copy becomes woolly and vague.”

He adds, though, that compliance is just one more layer in what can already be a drawn-out process. “On smaller projects, where you’re dealing with maybe three or four people, approval can be relatively painless.

"But on bigger projects – for instance, a corporate magazine, where multiple departments are involved – you could be waiting for sign-off from a string of people and only then have to go through compliance. When that many people are involved, the tracked changes on a document can resemble a fruit salad!” 

Kirby appreciates that following misselling scandals such as PPI, compliance in financial services is a necessity. However, he reveals that too often the approach is heavy-handed. “Compliance isn’t a specific science. Some departments you work with are easygoing, while others are a nightmare and sub-edit the life out of copy so that often there’s no definitive statement.” 

Matters aren’t helped when legal and compliance teams go beyond their remit of content accuracy and start making style points. “I’ve had feedback insisting we use the word ‘could’ rather than ‘might’. Things like this really test your patience,” Kirby says. 

Working together or apart

Brooke Kenyon, Account Director at Orchard PR, echoes the view that too many people involved in the process can make effective communication very difficult. But she insists that numbers aren’t always a hindrance.

“Sometimes a large team can work well, but it relies on everyone involved understanding the common goal and for roles to be clearly defined so they don’t overlap.”
This means the brand team checking the tone of voice; the marketing team ensuring communications are on-message; and the compliance desk ensuring products are fit for purpose.

If roles aren’t defined at the outset, it’s much harder for people to feel engaged, says Kirby. “You need to establish the ground rules – who is responsible for what and when will it be delivered? You need to engage people at the beginning and to do this, you really need one person overseeing the whole project. Ownership is important, as you need to have somebody who’s able to make decisions.” 

Ivory takes a similar line. “I’ve worked on projects that are believed to be close to sign-off, but then it becomes evident that the Marketing Director hasn’t even looked at it,” she explains. “If there are no clear lines of responsibility, the job becomes very difficult.” 

Of course, sometimes during the later stages, senior managers who have previously had no input, suddenly decide the project is their number one priority. They often decide to change the ground rules and, not surprisingly, this can often lead to conflicting messages and all-round confusion.
As Ivory explains, the role of the PR agency in such instances is to get the project back on track through forthright dialogue with the senior manager in question. “It’s generally not at CEO level but at middle management level that issues crop up,” she says. “Egos come into play – people want their name in lights, whether it be in articles, brochures, reports or blogs.” 

And when it comes to opinion or comment pieces, Ivory insists there is a need for a frank discussion with senior managers if they are wrongfully under the impression that they are skilled writers. 

“It’s tougher when you’re young and relatively inexperienced to say to a CEO that what they’ve written isn’t up to scratch. Go back 20 years and I wouldn’t have had the nerve to do that,” she says. “However, when you’re more experienced, you can tactfully explain the lack of clarity, that they aren’t on-message. More often than not, they do accept the wisdom of what you’re saying.” 

The key to planning 

Lisa Downes, Director at Liquid PR, maintains that if a clear strategy is in place at the outset and key messages have been established, consistency in communications is far easier to achieve. “Having a process helps,” she says. “A clear understanding of the best people to provide input in certain areas is an advantage. And if someone isn’t available at a given time, that there’s someone else in place to provide input.” 

Contingency planning is crucial in a digital world. The arrival of 24-hour live news and social media means speed is of the essence. As Downes points out, a company risks responding slower than their competitors to a key event if their people aren’t all briefed and lined up for comment, or sign-off is slow. 

She also stresses the importance of forward planning with compliance, making clear the need for urgency. “They need to be told, for instance, ‘we have two hours to respond’. Everyone needs to know what has to be done and when.” 

Corporate communications hit a low point (whether it be in a brochure, press release or blog) when marketing jargon is shoehorned into the copy. Words and phrases such as ‘learnings’, ‘ideation’, ‘swim lanes’, ‘blue-sky thinking’ and ‘thought leadership’ should automatically activate the delete button every time they appear in a draft document. 

Some companies insist on sticking to the buzzwords and turns of phrase used by their peers but, as Nick Kirby argues, this jargon will only lose the readers. “Some clients you deal with want to sound like everyone else. They talk in business speak, they want to be seen to be with the zeitgeist. The danger is that by sounding like everyone else, they lose sight of who they are.” 

As for the concept of ‘thought leadership’, Kirby is highly dismissive. “Most people or companies who use this buzzword aren’t anywhere near being thought leaders. Customers don’t want ‘thought leadership’ anyway, they want you to be good at your job and to speak to them in a language they understand.”   

Rambling press releases that try and cram in too many messages are Ivory’s particular bugbear. “Why, when a new product is being launched, does a press release include details of other products that have been around for years?” she demands.

How often is a PR agency brought in for its expert skills and guidance, only for the client to demonstrate who’s in charge by dismissing their efforts at every turn? Too often, is Ivory’s response.  

“It’s hugely frustrating, when you deliver copy that’s well-crafted, balanced and with no repetition, and the client then inserts copy that’s clunky, makes the brand look stupid and dilutes the message. You question why they hired an agency in the first place. Why have a dog and bark yourself?”

In terms of dealing with this problem, Downes believes that it comes down to building trust. “The clients are in charge, but there are times when you need to explain why something is the right course of action. Clients will always know their industry better than the agency, but communicating with clarity is our area of specialism. 

“As an external partner, you can and should push the boundaries and challenge them. Over time, you can prove the value you’ve added as their trusted adviser and have a much better working relationship.” 

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